American journalists have difficultly reporting on people and cultures around the world. Most of the time, it is limited to one perspective. Jina Morris of the Boston Review makes an interesting assessment of American journalists’ view of Africa.
In 1906, the readers of The New York Times opened their papers to a story about the Bronx Zoo’s latest attraction: Ota Benga, a 22-year-old Mutwa from today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Ota Benga let some of the savage nature of the African forest come out yesterday,” began the story, in which Benga is drenched with a hose in the zoo’s monkey cage.
Today, the “savage nature” of Africa is still on display, in American headlines: “Uganda’s rebels in murderous spree,” “Congo a country of rape and ruin” “Africa’s Forever Wars.” Sometimes the savagery doesn’t come from the “savages” themselves. It comes from poverty—“NIGERIA: Focus on the scourge of poverty”—or disease—“AIDS at 30: Killer has been tamed, but not conquered.” Other times, all the savagery blends together: “Starving Babies, Raped Mommies, Famine in Africa—Do you care?”
All I can imagine from these headlines is that Africa — all 54 countries, all 11.7 million square miles of it—must be a very deadly place.
But I’ve lived there. It’s not. Or rather, it can be, in certain places, at certain times. Far more often, and across most of the continent, it isn’t. Not even in its most infamous “war-torn” countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Goma, part of a region the United Nations’ special representative on sexual violence in conflict Margot Wallström two years ago dubbed “the rape capital of the world,” I went to an impromptu hip-hop show, full of dancing Congolese. In Kinshasa, nearly a thousand miles away on the other side of the country, I met an oboist for the city’s symphony orchestra.
Congo, like America, is very many things, all at the same time. This should be obvious. Why would a foreign country be any less complex than our own? So why, then, if you’re reading or watching most American news, do you tend to see the same simplified stories over and over again?
“I used to joke—and I want to emphasize this is a joke—that you could write that you’d wandered into some obscure backwater in Africa where people had three ears,” Howard French, former Africa correspondent for The New York Times, once told me. “If it’s not literally true you can get away with that, it’s figuratively true that you can.”
Journalists in Africa talk often about misrepresentations of the continent we cover. But this isn’t an easy conversation: we’re all far from home, working for pennies, because we care about what we do. Broad criticism of our profession can feel personal. Often, even though we’re ostensibly in charge of the story, we feel disempowered. The best journalism takes time and money, and often, we complain, we have neither. Travel budgets have shrunk, and the Internet demands ever more content.
But this doesn’t explain why journalism from Africa looks and sounds as it does. For this, we blame our editors, who (we like to say) oversimplify our copy and cut out context. They also introduce clichéd shorthand, such as “Arab north versus Christian and animist south” (Sudan), or boilerplate background, such as “the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed” (Rwanda). Virtually any story can be sold more easily if set in a “war-torn country.”
For these tendencies, our editors in turn often blame readers, whom they assume can’t or won’t follow us through villages with difficult-to-pronounce names or narratives with nuanced conclusions or moral ambiguities.
Ultimately, the problem with journalism from Africa isn’t about professional conventions. It’s about all of us—writers and readers, producers and viewers. We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with “the heart of darkness” label. Even stories that gesture toward something “positive” can’t escape the dominant narrative: “Africa isn’t a lost cause,” pleads one recent headline.
Read more: Afritorial